Harris Tweed is unique – the only commercially produced hand woven fabric in the world. Renowned globally, the famous Harris Tweed Orb mark guarantees that the cloth is:
“made from pure virgin wool dyed, spun and hand woven by islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides”
The story of Harris Tweed is one which blends tradition and change, but one where the craft
tradition in the Outer Hebrides remains central to the timeless appeal of the cloth.
The Harris Tweed Authority is an independent body, established to safeguard the standard
and promote the reputation of Harris Tweed. The Authority assures authenticity of Harris
Tweed by the application of the ‘Orb’ stamp on finished cloth, and the protection of the
‘Orb’ by international trademarks.
The Harris Tweed Authority holds in trust the ‘Orb’ trademark on behalf of the resident population of the Outer Hebrides. It grants a licence to produce Harris Tweed to the independent mills and artisans, and holds a register of the self-employed weavers.
The Outer Hebrides is an island group located off the west coast of Scotland. The islands
are sparsely populated with an overall population of 26, 900.
Approximately 23% of the population live in the main town of Stornoway, with the rest scattered throughout over 280 townships. Harris Tweed is a major source of employment in
many of these. Employment opportunities are limited, and while traditional crofting and fishing continues, this provides often marginal and seasonal income. Harris Tweed has been woven in the islands for centuries, augmenting subsistence incomes.
The production of Harris Tweed is central to the islands’ economic well being, with the
sector providing over 50% of manufacturing jobs, providing a mainstay of employment in
EU designated fragile economic areas. It supports an active artisan sector in the Outer
Hebrides, with designers creating products for international markets, generating revenue for
local retailers, and supporting the wider tourism industry.
The Craft of Making
Harris Tweed is produced by truly traditional hand crafted methods. Pure virgin wool is dyed
before being spun, as opposed to the more usual process of dying spun wool. This creates the blends of different colours in a single yarn, to achieve the characteristic
depth and complexity of the finished cloth.
At the mill, the wool is blended and carded prior to being spun and warped – a skilled process involving thousands of warp threads being wound onto large beams for delivery, together with weft yarn, to weavers in their own homes.
Weavers must be self employed and weave in their own homes. All Harris Tweed is hand woven on a treadle loom at each weaver’s home workshed. The weavers are highly skilled, hand tying yarns from the beams to the loom and then hand weaving the cloth to specified patterns. No mechanised power sources of any kind are permissible, so the process of ensuring a consistent tension and finish to the cloth is a highly skilled one. Such is the level of craftsmanship, it can take 4 hours to weave one metre of cloth.
Once the weaving is complete it is returned to the mill for finishing. Dirt, oil and other impurities are removed and the slightest flaws corrected by skilled hand darners prior to the finished cloth being dried, steamed and pressed into a flawless condition.
The final process is examination by the independent Harris Tweed Authority before the cloth is authenticated with ‘Orb’ trademark stamp. Only then can it be called Harris Tweed.
Origin and development
The origin of what is known locally by its Gaelic term ‘Clo Mor’ goes back centuries. The earliest archaeological evidence of weaving in Lewis dates from 2,000 years ago.
However it is during the last 150 years that the cloth developed slowly into the Harris Tweed craft industry it is today. In the nineteenth century, cloth was produced in looms across the islands, with islanders weaving fabric both for domestic use and to supplement their living by selling cloth at the local markets. Wool was dyed using available vegetation including heather, bracken and bog myrtle, before being carded and spun on a hand operated spinning wheel. In the 1840’s the local landowners, Lord and Lady Dunmore, asked local weavers to copy the Dunmore tartan. Impressed by the result, they used the cloth and introduced it to their wider social circles. Slowly Harris Tweed evolved, with small lengths woven to order. As demand increased, carding and spinning became organised by local merchants, to keep up with demand for the weaving process.
Over time it became clear that some form of protection from imitation should be sought.
A trademark application was made and granted in 1909, registered in 1910 and stamping with the Orb certification mark commenced the following year. Harris Tweed grew in popularity throughout the 20th Century. In recognition of the unique provenance of Harris Tweed and to assure additional protection to the geographical stipulation of production within the Outer Hebrides, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1993 enshrining the definition of Harris Tweed by legal statute.